In the days leading up to the presidential election, expectation games were in full swing on both sides of the political spectrum. Each group of partisan supporters pointed to favorable polls, brandished winning electoral models and predicted either narrow victory or landslide. It was as though they were describing two different elections in two different countries. In some respects, they were.
America is experiencing a hardening of ideological categories. Republicans are becoming more conservative and Democrats more liberal. Crossover voting is practically nonexistent. Partisans vote their tickets, leaving the shrinking center to decide the race. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff of the Obama White House, said the election would be decided in “five states and 500 precincts,” and it may have been even fewer. The rest of the country was essentially irrelevant and is divided between relieved winners and losers nursing a grudge.
This is the character of contemporary American politics, a ceaseless war for supremacy with no quarter asked or given. Barack Obama and George W. Bush stand as the most divisive presidents in recent history. Congress is more polarized now than at any time since the years after the Civil War. The Supreme Court is split into blocks that disagree even over the fundamental matter of constitutional interpretation.
The fractured government is the product of a divided society. The United States is populated by groups of people who may as well be living in different countries. They have separate histories, cultures and visions for the future. They are two distinct nationalities, divided by mutual distrust and joined by mammoth public debt.
Compromise has become a dirty word in politics, but it’s imperative to embrace this value if the government is to function as it was intended. Compromise is the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. Checks and balances are incorporated in every facet of the document. The genius of the Founders was their insistence that many interests be balanced in the course of governing. They had little faith in universal theories of public good and even less in the power of flawed humans to erect flawless societies. The more the utopian spirit dominates politics, the less will get done and the more problems will accumulate.
A successful president must master the art of the deal. All of the hard issues that were shunted off until after the election — budget sequestration, taxes and the debt limit — will come due soon. The executive and legislative branches must work together to stave off the approaching fiscal train wreck. This will require a degree of leadership the country hasn’t seen in many years.
A president who believes his mandate is to find ways around Congress is tragically mistaken. A White House that closes itself off from legitimate criticism has conceded its own impotence. A head of state who thinks it is his prerogative to impose his will by executive order will only divide the country further. America has chosen a leader; it remains to be seen if he can and will truly lead.
James S. Robbins is a senior editorial writer at The Washington Times and author of the forthcoming book, “Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity” (Encounter, 2012).